Lecture 01: Did Jesus Actually Live?
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Did Jesus Actually Live?
The uniqueness and authority of the Bible are always under attack. Professors and writers are claiming that Jesus never existed, Jesus never claimed to be God, the early church changed the basic preaching of Jesus, books were left out of the Bible, the copies of the Bible that have come down through the centuries are hopelessly corrupt, and how can you trust your translation where there are so many? This class walks you through the process of how we received our Bible and why we can trust it.
I want to talk about the historical Jesus. The historical Jesus equals the Biblical Jesus and for people who are conservative in their theology both fit together. But this is not true for a lot of people. We live in a skeptical culture and our skeptical culture ask questions about the Bible before you even get to what is in the Scriptures and how they put together. In New Testament studies this has become a technical study area called the historical Jesus. Many scholars would like to say there is a vast difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. In fact one such German scholar argues that the difference between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith is so great, you can’t work your way back from the Biblical Christ to the historical Jesus. There is no way to connect the two. Scholars have tried to prove on the basis of verification of the historical Jesus that he is in fact different than the Jesus of the Bible. The discussion of the historical Jesus is about collaboration. This collaboration has to do with a set of rules established that only reflect what people think the historical Jesus was like. So what can we prove about Jesus to be true, what is the burden of proof? So this is what makes people very skeptical of Jesus and if you start off with the idea of miracles being impossible and Jesus doesn’t exist as we know him there is an immediate problem.
Some academic say that we cannot get back to the historical Jesus, even people who have written technical information on Jesus in regards to international scholarly context about Jesus. There was a study that took over a decade in regards to this study of the historical Jesus. This study approached how to discuss the historical Jesus in a way that you could talk to someone who is skeptical about the Biblical Jesus. I have a brother who was very skeptical of the Biblical Jesus; he was a long way from the Lord. The journey that he went through with me in talking about religion; when we got into religion and especially in regards to what this was all about, he went out and purchased a book by a chaplain at Harvest University. If I could have picked a book, the book he chose would not have been the one. But I went with what I could but interestingly and amazingly my brother finally came to the Lord. So, today, I want to take you through some issues that touch on some skeptical aspects of Jesus.
III. Two Clearest Statements
So the first question is how do we know that Jesus ever existed? Is there any evidence of Jesus’ existence outside of the Biblical text? So we will look at sources outside the Bible, outside the New Testament.
The first reference comes from Josephus, a Jewish historian of the 1st century. This is from Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.3[63-64): Now, there was about at this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to himself both many of the Jews and many of the gentiles. He was the Christ. When Pilate at the suggestion of the principle men amongst us had condemned him to the Cross; those who loved him at the first did not forsake him for he appeared to them alive again on the third day as a divine providence told of these things and ten thousands other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians as so named from him is not extinct at this day. The reason why some of the phrases are in italics, it can be argued as those phrases were added later by people in the church. In other words Josephus never wrote them. And the problem is, if you look just at the italics, you say it obvious that we can’t trust this. Some people want to throw all of it out. Even if you just remove the words Josephus didn’t write, you have a very clear attestation by someone who was no friend of the Christians. He was a Jew who tells us some information about Jesus. In fact on the website there is a link to a discussion with a classical scholar as to the value of Josephus’ witness to Jesus.
b. Josephus on James
But Josephus has another comment about Jesus, specifically about Jesus’ brother, James. Josephus writes, ‘Festus was now dead and Albinus, a high priest, was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James and some others. And when he had formed an accusation against him as breakers of the law, he, meaning Albinus, delivered them to be stoned. So there you have references to Jesus by way of James. So that is two fairly strong attestations that there was a historical
person named Jesus.
So, these are some fairly secure and trustworthy historical references showing that there was a historical person named Jesus within the same time frame that we believe that Jesus lived from the Bible. As far as the death of Jesus, legally the Roman government under Pontus Pilate who condemned him to death but it was the Jewish people who insisted that he die.
When you turn to other kinds of literature, specifically the Jewish literature, you will find that there are indeed references to Jesus in the Talmud which is a bit surprising because you would think that the Jewish writings would just want to ignore Jesus, because of the conflict between Jews and Christians. I also want to look at some Greek and Roman writers as well. For example, Tacitus was the most reliable Roman historian who wrote in the early 2nd century. He was the person who said that Nero blamed the fire in Rome on the Christians. Tacitus writes that Christians have their name from Christ who had been executed by sentence of the procurator, Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. So Tacitus, a very well respected historian gives us that reference.
Suetonius: Suetonius is another Roman historian of the early 2nd century. He is the one to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in the time of Claudius in AD 41-54. This was important in terms of dating the Book of Acts also. Suetonius said that this expulsion was due to the rioting, ‘at the instigation of Chrestus, probably a variation of misspelling of the Roman spelling of the Latin of Christus. This is obviously referring to Jesus. So you have Suetonius making a reference to him. Thallus was the 1st century Greek historian and we get to his writing through a 3rd century author. He mentioned the darkness that occurred at Jesus’ death. Lucian of Samosata was a writer of satires and he was no friend of Christians. He made fun of Christians for worshipping a man as if he was God and he goes on to say that Jesus, ‘was a distinguished person who instituted their novel rights and was therefore crucified. And then later on he calls Jesus a sage. Just one more reference: Pliny the Younger was a 2nd century Roman Politician who wrote to the Emperor Trajan on how to deal with Christians who didn’t revere Caesar’s image. He wasn’t sure what to do with these folks. It is interesting that Pliny didn’t get his information by hearsay. He actually got his information from apostate Christians, a very direct connection with Christianity. Pliny said that Christians met together regularly and sang hymns to Christ as if to a God.
In conclusion, let me say that it would be really odd if this single most significant and most influential person in the history of the world wasn’t real. So we should remember that we can tell people that Josephus told us so. So, we know that Jesus lived and that he was Jewish and he lived in the first third of the first century. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate which puts Jesus’ death between the years 26-36 AD. As mentioned there is a Talmudic tradition from the Talmud that said that Jesus was hung but we know from some other Christian writings they would use the verb hung to be suspended on a pole as with a Cross. There is a web site that I recommend you to look at (https://publicchristianity.org/library/josephs-and-jesus-a-christian-forgery). There is also a book by F.F. Bruce titled, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the Bible. I would also recommend this book to read. He goes through these citations one at a time in detail.